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Jan 21 2004

La Vida Cheapo

By Barry Golson, March-April 2004

For 600 bucks a month, retirees in Mexico can live in a three-bedroom home, with a gardener. For a cool thousand...well, you won’t believe it

GUADALAJARA

On a balmy afternoon in Guadalajara, my wife, Thia, and I are relaxing with Janet Levy in the garden of her rented stucco home in a quiet, leafy part of the city. A former assistant to the chief executive of a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization, Levy, 69, settled in Guadalajara in the early '90s—and life since then, she says, has been nothing less than grand.

For starters, there is her standalone three-bedroom house with a maid's room, the kind that might rent for $2,500 a month in an upscale D.C. suburb. "I pay $600 a month," she says. "And that includes the gardener." Levy points out that Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam's Club, and Blockbuster all have stores in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, with a population of 5 million. So when she's not puttering in her garden, Levy can indulge in American-style shopping.

Levy is also keen on Mexican health care, which, as we find, is a popular topic among expats. Though U.S. citizens living in Mexico are not covered by Medicare for doctors' visits and medical services (unless they travel back to the U.S.), the national insurance program is available to foreigners and costs about $300 a year. There is private insurance as well, at prices considerably cheaper than in the U.S., though costs have been rising.

As for hospitals, Levy informs us that Guadalajara boasts several excellent facilities, including Hospital San Javier (which has a branch in Puerto Vallarta), Hospital del Carmen, and Americas Hospital. The custom in Mexico is for a family member or friend to stay at the hospital with the patient. Many doctors speak English, but most nurses don't, so some Americans take a Mexican friend who can translate.

Levy says Americans she knows, many on modest incomes, pay for medical expenses out of pocket, because fees and lab costs are so reasonable. They'll use insurance only for major procedures. "I've had back surgery and my gall bladder out, and the care was excellent," she says. Virtually all drugs except controlled substances are available without prescriptions. "I pay $40 an office visit," Levy says. "And did I mention how nice it is to sit and really talk to a doctor?"

Why are we in Guadalajara? Well, after 30 years with only a few weeks off each year, my wife and I both suddenly found ourselves between jobs. Ordinarily, I'd have done what I've done in the past—immediately hit the pavement in search of work. But this time it struck me: What's the hurry?

So, while we're not ready for retirement ourselves, having just skittered past the midpoint of our 50s, we thought we'd use the extended downtime to travel and check out possible places to settle.

We had another reason for traveling south of the border: to see what it would cost. According to my research, something like half of the people in my generation haven't saved enough to retire comfortably. Meaning, if we hope to kick back in the lifestyle to which we've become accustomed, one of three things will have to happen. We'll have to either a) save a lot of money fast or b) win the lottery.

Or, alternatively, we could move to Mexico. I'd read a few of those how-to-retire books that claim you can live in Mexico on $400 a month, with all the frijoles you can eat, and my skeptical reaction was, "Oh, really?" So, I checked some other sources and found that, while our own lifestyle would take a considerable hit if we tried to get by on $400 a month, the cost of living well in Mexico can be quite low indeed. Our curiosity was piqued.

As for the language barrier, I retain a ragged fluency in Spanish, having lived in Mexico for a few years as a child. Thia speaks only the Spanish she's picked up from restaurant menus. In other words, we were about as proficient as most American couples considering a move to Mexico. We charted a course through a "retirement belt" that stretches from central Mexico to the Pacific coast and is an increasingly popular destination for thousands of Americans seeking to settle in sunnier climes and less expensive venues. The plan was to meet, chat with, and generally poke our noses into the lives of retirees.

We make Guadalajara our first stop because the State Department estimates that more than 50,000 Americans live in the area. We find a lot to like about what guidebooks call the "most Mexican of cities," not least of all its graceful architecture, matchless Orozco murals, and extremely friendly and accommodating citizens. We spend several days sightseeing, listening to street corner mariachis, and antiquing and boutiquing in the arts-and-crafts suburb of Tlaquepaque. We eat well, with dinners for two—including appetizers and a cocktail apiece—rarely topping $25.

We are surprised to learn, therefore, that the majority of American transplants no longer settle in Guadalajara proper. Instead, retirees generally head south to the Lake Chapala area, about 45 minutes away by car. "The city once was a draw for retirees, but no more," says Michael Forbes, a trim, transplanted Brit in his 40s, over a breakfast of huevos rancheros. Forbes is the editor of western Mexico's most widely read English-language weekly newspaper, The Guadalajara Colony Reporter, and has witnessed the routine: "People come down and look around, but 95 percent of them head elsewhere. Lake Chapala, with its year-round temperate climate and all those like-minded people, can seem like a paradise."

Janet Levy disagrees. She likes Guadalajara's many fine museums, the symphony, the big-city life. "I'd get bored at Lakeside," she declares, using the name Americans have given the large expatriate colony around Lake Chapala. "Why, there are people there who never even come into Guadalajara." This is the first volley we witness of the popular retirement sport—putting down where other retirees live.

We decide to scope out Lakeside for ourselves.

Guadalajara scorecard (on a scale of 1 to 10)

* Looks 7 (lovely downtown);
* Charm 6;
* Culture 9;
* Shopping 10;
* Medical facilities 9;
* Other Americans 2 (not so many as we expected);
* Wow factor—wonderful nighttime plaza life.
* Thia's review: "Big city, love the shopping, but not being able to speak Spanish can be frustrating."
* Barry's review: "Nice place to visit, shop, and see doctors, but not to live in."

LAKESIDE

We pack our bags and taxi south to Lake Chapala, a $30 ride. The view as we approach is breathtaking—a 50-mile-long lake, no urban haze, all sun and hills and marshes. Idyllic, but looks can be deceiving: the lake is polluted by industrial waste upriver. Where once there was fishing and water sports, the lake is now a view, nothing more. There have been ongoing efforts to clean it up, including a hands-around-the-lake protest several years ago, but significant results seem a long way off.

The retirement zone comprises two communities along the lake, a few miles apart: the funky, more Mexican village of Chapala, where gringos and locals live mostly side by side, and Ajijic (pronounced ah-hee-heek), where many Americans and Canadians live apart from the natives in pricey gated communities. Ajijic straddles a highway strip whose shop signs are half in English, half in Spanish, but the town does have its Mexican charms: a few blocks in from the main highway, for instance, you'll find small plazas, quaint churches, and solemn donkeys pulling carts.

Our guide at Lakeside is Ruth Ross-Merrimer, 69, an irrepressible dame with a sardonic wit. A Californian who worked in documentaries, Ross-Merrimer has lived here for 20 years and has reported on the social scene for several local English-language publications. She has also self-published a novel called Champagne and Tortillas, which pokes satirical fun at a retirement community not unlike Lakeside. She can be tart about the goings-on around the lake, but also boasts about the amateur theater, the October concerts, and the opera season, as well as the charity work done by the gringo population, which includes a large number of Canadians. "Some people do live in gated bubbles," she says at the lively Ajijic Grill, where we meet. "But most had enough of an adventurous spirit to move to Mexico in the first place. They were doers, and they pour a lot of that energy into local charities. It's either that or Margarita City."

Whether you move to Guadalajara, Lakeside, or elsewhere in Mexico, Ross-Merrimer advises, be prepared for culture shock. "The two cultures have opposing attitudes toward wealth, death, time, and taxes," she says. "Americans tend to flaunt their wealth. Mexicans shield it, sometimes behind walls with spiked glass. Americans consider death the end of life; Mexicans consider it a part of life. Americans obsess about time; Mexicans are casual about it—and that's understating it, honey. Americans pay their taxes without protest; Mexicans put them off or ignore them."

Thia and I meet a wide range of retirees over the next several days. We see gorgeous homes, landscaped with all of the dazzling garden foliage the climate encourages ("Stick a clothespin in the ground here, and it'll grow," says Ross-Merrimer). And while we didn't collect data in a formal way, we were struck by how consistently retirees spoke of the reasonable cost of living in Lakeside compared with where they'd lived before. Here are a few of the comments we recorded. On housing: "A house that costs $600,000 in Phoenix might cost $300,000 here." On taxes: "Real estate taxes in a New York suburb can run $12,000 a year for a house this size; here they're $67." On utilities: "Gas and electricity are $600 a month in Chicago; here it's $100." (Electricity in Mexico is expensive, but at Lakeside, there's little need for air conditioning.) And finally, on amenities: "A maid in New Jersey, if you can afford one, can be $100 a day. Here, it's $5 to $10 a day."

In Lakeside, as in other Mexican retirement havens, you can live as cheaply or as extravagantly as you've a mind to. Karen Blue, who at 52 "chucked corporate life" in San Francisco's Bay Area to settle in Ajijic in 1996, runs seminars for newcomers to the area with her business partner, Judy King, 59, who unlike Karen needs to work for a living. They also host a helpful subscription website for people thinking of moving to the Chapala area.

Blue and King join us for lunch to talk about life in Lakeside for those without fat pensions or golden parachutes. Our first question: "Can Americans live comfortably here on their Social Security checks?" The answer is an unqualified yes.

"Truth is," says Blue, "there are lots of respectable homes you can rent for about $600, and then you add maybe $100 for a gardener and maid—which makes for a very competitive housing package, no matter what your financial circumstances." Adds King: "I actually know a fair number of people who do it on less than that. They've looked around, gotten a decent little place for $350. They may not go out to eat much, they eat more tacos than steak, but they have a very nice life here. So, yes, you can live here on your Social Security check."

On our last day in Ajijic, we gather at a lush garden home with several transplanted residents, including retiree John Bragg, 69, and his wife, Mary, 57, Californians who moved to Mexico 11 years ago. I mention to John that we are planning to visit legendarily arty San Miguel de Allende next. "Oh, I'd never live in San Miguel," says Bragg, engaging in the ever-popular sport of bashing other retirement havens. "The town is filled with Texans. You can't even go to a bar and hear any Spanish. Some blond lady's gonna come up to you and say, 'Y'all must be new in town. Wouldn't you lahk to go on a house tour?'"

As it happens, one of the first people we'll meet in San Miguel is a lady who runs—you guessed it—house tours.

Lakeside scorecard

* Looks 7 (for the vista);
* Charm 4 (some nice plazitas);
* Culture 5 (October concerts and ballet);
* Shopping 2 (but Guadalajara, 9, is not far);
* Medical facilities 2 (ditto);
* Other Americans 9 (lots of them);
* Wow factor—all sorts of personal services, from tai chi classes to assisted living facilities.
* Thia's review: "No need to worry about speaking Spanish here, but kind of suburban."
* Barry's review: "Nice folks, but not where I'd settle. Can't get over that pretty lake no one swims in."

SAN MIGUEL

The colonial silver town of San Miguel de Allende is the crown jewel of central Mexico. It boasts cobblestone streets, pastel-washed doors, art galleries nestled in every other nook, an enchanting main plaza known as El Jardin, and the Parroquia, a spired, fanciful-gothic confection of a church located in the center of town, whose bells toll at utterly unpredictable hours.

Although somewhat remote (the nearest airport is in León, an hour and a half away), this town of 70,000, which is home to an estimated 2,500 American retirees, scores high on the jet-set buzz meter. Little wonder. The restaurants are first-rate, shopping is an extreme sport (the streets are packed with art galleries and shops selling ceramics, folk art, and antiques), and the music spilling from the town's restaurants and cafés sometimes suggests a university town on perpetual fiesta.

We meet Jennifer Hamilton, a 62-year-old Audrey Hepburn look-alike, in her airy, elegant apartment just off the Jardin. Another transplanted Californian, who has lived in San Miguel for 12 years, she gives tours of San Miguel's fanciest homes, a Sunday afternoon event that draws as many as 400 gawkers at a time.

While Hamilton enjoys talking about the multimillion-dollar mansions up in the hills, she also speaks frankly about the drawbacks of San Miguel not described in the travel brochures. "It's not a little village anymore," she says. "The streets are crumbling from the weight of the tourist buses. Good homes are expensive; utilities go up every month. I'm worried that the town will price itself out; I don't want it to become only for the very wealthy and the Mexican poor. There are still tin hovels tucked between fabulous homes. Water's giving out, too. Something will have to be done." She pauses, smiles. "But I still tell people to come down here to live. There's so much to do here!"

The town's chief arbiter and critic, Archie Dean, agrees. Author of the indispensable The Insider's Guide to San Miguel, the 66-year-old Dean is a gangly, fedora-wearing, knapsack-carrying New York State native who spends his days walking the streets, stopping at restaurants and cafés to sample fare for the next edition of his book. When he arrived in 1990, he says, San Miguel was a relatively primitive town where phones were scarce and shopping limited. "Now we're all connected," he says, referring to cybercafés, cable TV piped in from the States, and direct-dial long-distance phone calls. He contradicts the notion that only rich retirees can afford the town. "There are apartment rentals at every price, from $300 to $5,000. You can live well for as little as $700 a month. And I know a lot of people living here on modest fixed incomes."

For those expats possessing the wherewithal, San Miguel's cosmopolitan charm and arty ambience can also translate into opportunity. On the leafy patio of the Casa de la Cuesta, a charming bed-and-breakfast a few minutes from the plaza, we chat with owner Bill LeVasseur, 59, a former advertising executive who lived and worked in Mexico when he was younger and returned with his wife, Heidi, an artist, in 1994. Owning a B & B was not in their plans. "We were retiring," he says, "not thinking about a new business or anything."

Nevertheless, the LeVasseurs crunched their numbers and decided that the home they'd begun building in San Miguel could be enlarged and turned into a home away from home for tourists. LeVasseur says that an income of $50,000 a year assures a retiree of a good life, "including eating out two or three times a week." The couple have three grown sons in the States, and in addition to traveling back home themselves, occasionally they send "plane tickets for the kids and grandkids" to come to Mexico.

The LeVasseurs tell us they considered retiring to other places in Mexico but decided San Miguel was the place for them. "Sure, some people like their condos in Puerto Vallarta, but the heat there in the summer is unbearable and they've got mosquitoes as big as blackbirds. They've got McDonald's and Taco Bells, and we sure don't. Life is more authentic here."

Sounds like our cue to move along—to Puerto Vallarta.

San Miguel scorecard

* Looks 10;
* Charm 7 (points off for the traffic and McMansions);
* Culture 10;
* Shopping 8;
* Medical facilities 6;
* Other Americans 7 (more points subtracted for some obnoxious wealth flaunting);
* Wow factor—a world-class language school, ditto the restaurants.
* Thia's review: "I'm leaving my heart here and coming back someday."
* Barry's review: "Love it too, but I'm not a mountain guy. I like the ocean."

PACIFIC COAST

We won't tarry long in Puerto Vallarta here because we didn't tarry long there. Guidebooks extol its blend of old-Mexican charm and jet-set beach glamour. There's a large, active American retirement community in Puerto Vallarta, an international airport 20 minutes from downtown, and plenty of the amenities that spring up around a modern resort. Still, there's a touch of Las Vegas to Puerto Vallarta. It's a matter of taste, I suppose, but after four days we decide to move up the coast, where we hear life is a little less frantic.

We wander some 25 miles north of Puerto Vallarta to the village of San Francisco, known to locals as San Pancho. There, we are the guests of Bill Kirkwood and Barbara Hart-Kirkwood.

Ex-Silicon Valley fast trackers who'd vacationed in the region for two decades, Bill, 54, and Barbara, 52, moved permanently to San Pancho two years ago along with another couple, their close friends John Levens, 56, and Judi MacGregor-Levens, 55. Together, the couples built Casa Obelisco, a striking 5,300-square-foot open-terrace Mediterranean house with a mosaic dome perched above a splendid beach. The two families live in separate wings and this year began to rent out extra bedrooms as a bed-and-breakfast. While there, Thia and I luxuriate in the canopied beds, checking our shoes in the morning for scorpions.

Bill and Barbara's tales about house building, making new friends, and adapting to Mexico's what-will-be mentality are upbeat and cheery. But outspoken Barbara, the kind of gal who'd give you the straight dope about anything (including her "terrific" $3,500 face-lift in Mexico), faults a "certain lawlessness" in her adopted country. Though they always feel personally safe, she says, fighting the mordida (bribes) system is useless. Despite ostensible reforms under President Vicente Fox, traffic cops must still be paid off. "Taxes are absurdly low, and so is a policeman's pay," Barbara explains. "How else can they make ends meet?"

They say many friends come to visit, look at properties, and get the itch. "Then, at the last minute, they back down," says Barbara while fixing an adios sunset drink for us on their rooftop. "Why? Fear of the unknown. In the States, you know there's always a fix; here, it's often fix-it-yourself. You've got to have that spirit."

Which brings us to the final leg of our own quest. A couple of miles south of San Pancho, 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, lies the village of Sayulita, estimated population 1,500. Thia and I stumble upon it while in search of an early breakfast one Sunday morning during our stay at Casa Obelisco.

At first, Sayulita seems a slightly grungy place, with no paved roads and with chickens and dogs running loose. But strolling down to its gently curved beach, sitting down to watch pelicans dive-bomb for their breakfast in the surf, we know we've found someplace special. The village, ringed by soft hills, has no traffic lights, paved roads, or ATMs—and just one grocery store worthy of the name. (There are, however, three Internet cafés.)

We quickly get advice from fellow beachcombers: "You have to go to Rollie's." We are directed past the little town plaza near the beach, up a dirt street just past the butcher shop. Across the street, beneath a plain awning, is Rollie's, the town's leading breakfast establishment. The place is packed, and there's a line out the door.

Proprietor Rollie Dick, a crinkly-eyed gent of 64, runs the short-order grill; his wife, Jeanne, 59, waits on tables. From time to time Rollie strolls out to sing for the patrons and waltz a delighted lady customer around the tables.

The amateur-theater ham from Salinas, California, is Sayulita's biggest booster and its gringo godfather. After closing time at noon, in the Dicks' apartment above the restaurant, Rollie explains how a retired school principal (Rollie) and a teacher (Jeanne) landed in this tiny town beside the Pacific.

It happened, he says, while they were on a vacation five years ago. They fell in love with Sayulita, and before leaving, Rollie asked the woman they were staying with to contact them if a property that matched their limited resources came on the market. Like so many others approaching retirement, Rollie had toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant. When word came that a building was available in Sayulita, the Dicks decided to take the chance.

The Dicks paid $50,000 in cash for a three-story building with a welding shop on the ground floor that Rollie converted into the restaurant. "You had to have vision," he says. "Plus, property taxes are only $32 a year." He lived there for nearly two years on his own, understanding little Spanish, waiting for Jeanne to retire and join him.

Later in the afternoon, on a stroll through town, Rollie expands on How Things Are Done Down Here. "There is, absolutely, a mentality here of living in the now, not worrying too much about the future. And you know what? It's wonderful! We made the decision that we were going to live here as guests of Mexico and do things their way."

The next day, Thia and I go looking for a piece of land of our own in Sayulita.

True, we set out merely to chronicle our journey, not to put down a stake. We're not retiring yet. But what can I say? We found a lovely little parcel above the village. We paid cash for it and got some papers in return.

Will we build there? Will we become expatriates? Will it all turn out all right? That's another story.

Pacific Coast Villages scorecard

* Looks 9;
* Charm 10 (those sunsets!);
* Culture 0;
* Shopping 1 (but both villages are within 30 miles of Puerto Vallarta);
* Medical facilities 2 (but again, there's Puerto Vallarta);
* Other Americans 7 (laid-back, quirky);
* Wow factor—that surf, for beginners and hot dogs alike.
* Thia's review: "Ideally, it would be four months here, four in San Miguel, four in New England."
* Barry's review: "Three words—que sera, sera."

Barry Golson is the former executive editor of Playboy and TV Guide and former editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Internet Life.

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